Ted Spoon is an excellent historian/writer for Boxing Scene. He is also a member of the CBZ board & I'm quite pleased that both he & another terrific boxing historian/writer for Boxing Scene, Mike Casey, are active members of our little lash-up in cyber space ...
There's No Smoke Without Frazier, Part 2
By Ted Spoon from Boxing Scene
Dubbed “The Fight of the Century”, this was actually the third time such a title had been attached to a major boxing event, but this one promised to be everything the Johnson/Jeffries and Dempsey/Carpentier mismatches were not. Being televised to millions around the world at home or in the local cinema -- the pre fight scuffle adding to the overall hype set the stage for the richest fight in boxing’s history.
The stage was set for March 8th, 1971, Madison Square Garden, New York. The guaranteed $2.5 Million for each fighter finally topped Jack Dempsey’s rematch vs. Gene Tunney, some 44 years later. Frazier was 27 to Ali’s 29, but while he held the card on youth he was significantly shorter and outreached.
Psyching himself up in the dressing room, Frazier shadow boxed sporting that snappy green robe as ex-boxer Archie Moore stood by to try and echo those bottled up feelings to the intrigued crowd. When the champ was ready, on his own terms he allowed Archie to speak: “Joe, I know you don’t like to talk at a moment like this, but you’re getting two and a half million dollars, will that make any difference in the way you‘re going to fight”.
To which he replied: “Well, it gives me the inspiration to do little more, and go farther a little more, y‘know? And I feel good about it”.
Ali, the undefeated challenger and supposed ‘peoples champion’ was out first having predicted an ambitious 6th round victory and bellowed out in that confident tone of his: “The hour of truth has arrived!”. Upon entering the ring he was given a very warm reception.
Frazier’s entrance caused a mixed reaction to reverberate around the arena -- a sure sign of uncertainty at his position as champion. There was clearly allot of observers who believed Ali was going to take back what he never lost in the ring.
At a fabulously conditioned 205lbs, Frazier, hopping up n’ down had never looked so ready. Ali on the other hand, with tassels on his boots calmly skipping, smiling and acknowledging the famous faces near ringside hadn’t the fuzziest what was around the corner.
Shooting out of their corners, they met in centre ring. Ali landed big early with left hooks and right cross’. Frazier characteristically banged those gloves together while doing his best to swipe away Ali’s flickering punches, making sure to cross over his right parry hand to protect that left eye as he trudged forward.
Ali swept up the first two rounds, finding Frazier’s bobbing head with sharp punches but Joe’s advancements did not once fumble despite getting really tattooed in the 2nd; he gave the impression he was willing to walk through walls as he continued briskly advancing. The third and fourth rounds were much more evenly contested; Joe landed powerful hooks to the head n’ body and began suffocating Ali’s boxing. Planting his feet, Ali wanted to punch Joe dead in his tracks so he could box, but the hunched over swarmer did not stop ploughing forward, breaching the bigger man’s defences and opening up with scintillating swings that caused the whole crowd to aghast as they crashed on target -- Frazier played his part of the ‘irresistible force’ to its fullest.
The 5th round was a better one for the former champ, but Joe gave him a taste of his own medicine when he stood static, hands his sides and made Ali miss -- that familiar seedy smile split across Frazier’s face as he looked far the fresher of the two. Onto round 6 and Ali’s predicted victory was thrown back in his face when Frazier pinned him to the ropes, working his body over. Ali could no longer punch with Joe who was sustaining that 5th gear. Like Buster Mathis had, Ali now looked to smother and use Frazier’s strength against him, but he was heavily punished for these tactics -- even with an increasingly swelling face the champ was not hitting any speed bumps.
During the 8th round of what was turning out be a very taxing battle for each fighter, Ali was pulled off the ropes by Joe after being booed and Frazier bagged another one with his booming punches. It seemed that Frazier’s offence was unavoidable in its persistence, but Round 9 was scored for Ali by each judge and the referee. Getting his second wind he opened up with blistering cameo’s of stinging punches which further distorted Frazier’s battle worn mask of a face.
However, for all of Ali’s efforts to this point, which had been considerable, Frazier just turned the heat on again in the tenth, looking to iron out every ounce of adversity that remained in his enemy’s failing body. The 11th round was crisis time for Ali; after more gruelling exchanges in the corner Referee Mercante separated the two, but Ali stayed put and goaded Frazier to go to him. Then in a miscalculated manoeuvre, Ali’s flurry was ducked under and Frazier came out of his crouch with a demolition ball of a left hook. Ali’s body went limp and if not for the ropes he would he been felled when another short left hook landed square on his chin. A heart of pure gold is all that saved him as Frazier force fed him a few more big ones before the round ended. When it did, corner man an motivator Budini Brown began throwing water over a his man’s face who now had a dejected looking demeanour about him.
Frazier was all over Ali at the start of the 12th, and was unrelenting with a dynamic attack in a highly entertaining 13th. Fatigue had gotten the better of both gladiators at this stage having expanded enormous amounts of energy, which saw Ali manage to keep Frazier honest in the 14th.
A close fight by any standards, the 15th round was the deal sealer, the last proverbial nail in the coffin for Muhammad. After an urgent start by Frazier he positioned Ali near the ropes and whipped in another left hook at his exposed n’ grossly swollen jaw -- later in life Ali explained he saw the punch coming but did not have the strength of arm to protect against it -- landing perfectly it spawned a slow-mo replay of epic proportions. The image of Frazier’s honey punch felling the undefeated ‘Louisville lip’ climaxed the fight to decide who was the best in the world. Ali was up quickly come the count of 3, which Frazier would go onto describe as an ‘act of god’, and he somehow survived Frazier’s blunted, but still deadly efforts before the final bell sounded.
All three judges had Frazier the rightful victor by Unanimous Decision.
With Ali defeated there was little reason for Joe to continue, and in his critically battered state it was wise that he didn’t. With the press hounding a frequently hospitalised fighter he simply announced that he would not be in action again until sometime next year.
At the turn of 1972, Frazier resumed his unfocused career for easy purses vs. two journeyman, Terry Daniels and Ron Stander. First entering the ring vs. Daniels, Frazier’s physique had degenerated from being finely cut to blatantly flabby. Weighing in at over 10 pounds more than when he fought Ali, Joe looked like an unmotivated, faded fighter as he slowly dispatched of Terry in the 4th. He weighed even more for his battle with Stander and appeared vulnerable when hit at times before sloppily wrapping matters up in the 5th.
This suffering work ethic culminated into his embarrassing loss vs. the undefeated contender, George Foreman. When they fought, Frazier had been out of the ring for an unhealthy 8 months and he was again in poor condition. Coming up to the fight he had been putting in just as many rounds with his band, ‘The Knockouts’ as he had been sparring.
Foreman was very nervous having failed a previous attempt to stare the champ out when he entered the arena, but he was fuelled on fearful adrenaline, his condition was perfect and all the desire was there having been given a few tips off former great Joe Louis, a personal hero of his. As they squared off before Arthur Mercante’s instructions Foreman, teary eyed, hoped that Frazier would not look down and see his shaky legs, but when the bell sounded he turned the scenario on its head.
As they came to one another the 6'3, 217lbs Foreman dwarfed Frazier who was only 3lbs lighter with that spare tire around his waist. Although crude, Foreman used those muscular and long arms to push Frazier away before he was close enough to land his short hooks. When one did land, Foreman did not take any notice as if a little girl has slapped him. Joe, who rarely won the first round, was put down from a glancing uppercut. He got up, but was shoved into his own corner and fell to one knee from another uppercut that landed with ugly results. Up again and down he went just before the bell sounded.
After his team worked desperately to revive him some, Frazier was out of his corner an back into the hurricane Foreman was creating. George’s powerful uppercuts could not miss Frazier’s predictable ducks he was performing in his dazed state. Every time he looked for cover close up a firm push on each shoulder by Foreman got him back in the firing range, there was no escape. Foreman was warned for his pushing to which his ecstatic corner naturally objected to, but it didn’t matter. Down another two times, Frazier was punched off balance to a knee after a hybrid right hook/uppercut.
All the heart in the world was not going to save the champion as he stumbled to the opposite corner at which time Mercante waved the bout off.
Ali had been very active on his comeback trail, but picked up another loss vs. Ken Norton, a regular sparring partner for Frazier. With both fighters looking to redeem themselves a non title match was arranged for the beginning of 1974. Before that, Frazier saw off a game effort by British fighter, Joe Bugner over 15.
The ‘super fight’ rematch did not warrant nor garner the interest of the first and justifiably so for the fight itself was placid in contrast to their previous fight. Frazier possessed none of the intensity he showed 3 years before hand as Ali clinched and pot-shotted his way to a comfortable decision over 12 moderate rounds.
Joe carried on with his career to see how things would unfold. Jerry Quarry was given a rematch for June at the Garden. In the presence of an all star boxing class, featuring the likes of Gene Tunney, Willie Pep, and Joe Louis as the referee, Frazier pummelled Quarry to defeat in 5 rounds. In the fourth he zipped in a brutal left hook off the jab that caused Jerry to momentarily freeze as the effects shuddered across his nervous system. Making good use of his right hand he worked the body, dropping him with a short left. Louis stopped the fight in the next round as Quarry was in a bad way.
Following Ali’s upset victory over Foreman he had three men lined up for title defences, one of them was Frazier, which gave him a last chance to go for broke in his tainted career against the man who continued to taunt an belittle his position.
For another healthy pay check and ‘filler’ fight before Ali, Joe fought Jimmy Ellis again who was now 35, and like Frazier, a man of several tough contests. Under the Australian sun a former victim of Frazier, Bob Foster refereed the two men. Enjoying himself, Frazier let the fight see a good number of rounds before turning on the heat. Jimmy was cut in the 7th and was pulled out early in the ninth by his corner as he had nothing left.
‘Super fight’ III was, at least in Ali’s mind, going to be a walk in the park. He had seen Frazier in his last few bouts and concluded he would not put up much resistance. Labelling Frazier a Gorilla as he hit a rubber toy in the press conferences, Ali milked any opportunity to make fun of his arch rival. The confident champion immortalized the bout in as the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, held 1st October, 1975.
In the searing Manila heat the two aging veterans waged a war that ran off Frazier’s concentrated hate. After typically falling behind in the opening sessions, Joe made his mark in the 6th with tremendous hooks all over Ali’s bloated body and started taking over until his left eye began to badly swell in between the furious exchanges nearing the 12th. With neither fighters stamina what it once was they began flailing all over the place in the 13th and 14th, but in the latter round, Frazier took an unnecessary amount of punches so Eddie Futch took it upon himself to rescue his drained battler before Dundee did to his -- it looked as if they were prepared to die in the ring.
The ‘Thrilla’ is still praised to this day and remains in the top three for the highest amount of punches thrown in a heavyweight fight. It was the exclamation mark on two strikingly different n’ distinct careers, and the end of another ‘golden age’ in the heavyweight division.
With no way back, a severely bloated, 224lbs Frazier decided to shave his head and rematch Foreman in 1976 who was still trying to come to terms with his loss against Ali. Joe fought an interestingly conservative fight on his behalf, but he could not hurt the more paced version of Foreman who caught him good in the fifth, flooring him twice. Futch came to his fighter's rescue again, smartly pulling him out.
After 5 years passed there was just one more fight, that needed reminder to all great fighters that their time is well n’ truly up. Frazier had taken many punches to the noggin, but that did not cloud his judgement when he scraped a draw vs. heavyweight Journeyman Jumbo Cummings. This was more of an experiment than last hurrah, but Frazier officially retired for good at this point.
So, what of ‘Smokin Joe Frazier’s legacy? He lost 4 times, twice to the same fighter who, along with Joe, were the best of their era -- there is no shame like there was when Foreman lost to Young, Tyson lost to Douglas, or Lewis lost to Rahman. Secondly he was never truly conquered for his defeats came when he was not the same fighter, and while Foreman very well may of destroyed him any day of the week you must consider his obvious decline in mental and physical well being after the first Ali fight.
More amazingly, rooted deep within his personal problems was the fact he competed at the highest level with impaired vision. His left eye caused for a heavy shipment of right hands throughout his career and his right eye began faltering also, but at his awesome peak it didn’t matter. His victory over Ali must stand as a monumental achievement. It was the biggest fight in their boxing lives and Frazier came out on top without question. He controlled the flow of battle and twice had Ali ready for the cleaners. The sheer belligerence on display that night may have been enough to see off any Heavyweight titan past or present.
Frazier the fighter was simple, but terribly effective -- The ‘black Marciano’ aptly fit as one of Joe‘s first name tags. He was the most pressing of all the swarmers -- Dempsey fought in controlled spurts like Tyson did, and Marciano was often more cautious before he let his fists fly -- Frazier went to work, punched on you and did not stop forcing the fight on his terms, which became harshly demanding on the opponent as the intensity he applied increased. He was a breath taking body puncher in every sense of the word, and his powerful right hand was overshadowed by a left hook that was surely the best since the day’s of the Manassa Mauler. If Henry Armstrong was a Heavyweight he’d be Joe Frazier.
An iron will, granite chin, crunching power and a frightening threshold for pain was what Frazier brought to the table each time the vertically challenged fighter came to dance -- he was one of the hardest men to fight, and near impossible to beat at his own game.
Joe’s memorable performances that exemplified the meaning of the word excitement and his amiable persona have left their imprint, but it would be fitting that his arch rival has historically overwritten Frazier’s importance an worth. Rather than conclude this story I ask of you this…if it wasn’t for Joe Frazier, how would we rate Muhammad Ali.